A Pinhole Portrait of War
We use many words, but they do not always mean
what they seem.
And the more we say a word, the more it moves
away from us.
I use the English word war because my German
word Krieg feels too pale.
Have you ever noticed that the word war, reversed,
War. The word, the sound, war, is crude, cruel,
harsh, violent, horrible.
Even pronouncing this one syllable feels to me a
I write the word on a dark background. In chalk.
I place a black box – a pinhole camera I made – in
front of me. I open the shutter.
Ten minutes of exposure time. Ten minutes: is this
a long time or a short time? Can time be compared?
Measured? Ten minutes is not an amount of time.
Ten minutes is a dwelling place. I dwell here, within
this exposure time.
I speak aloud. “War ... war ... war …”.
The stop-watch is running. Stop-watch: what an odd
word. Without real meaning. Stop, watch!
No. Time, like war, neither starts nor stops.
Time, like war, is what we know, what
we feel, what we suffer, what we learn.
A photographic exposure of 1/60 of a second gives visual
data. A photographic exposure of ten minutes offers
a room, a place, in which to learn, to know, to suffer,
to grow. This ten-minutes of exposure is a chance to
find some compassion, maybe even some humility.
At first I feel a strangeness in this word, war. War.
War. Then after a few minutes it seems to be moving
away from me. Or am I moving away from the word?
A nameless distance, a gap, a blur, between the word
and me. A vague alienation. I’m getting trapped in
abstraction. Abstraction is forgetting.
Move further, I say to myself. Go deeper. Go deeper
into this. I must.
Now images are gathering around the word. War. I
say the word and begin to see.
Images of the aseptic fake TV war. But they’re not
war, not war at all, not even close. They’re plastic
cartoons, for naïve troubled children, for people
urgently in need of dulling and not-knowing.
I watch the fake not-really-war images, and a truth
dawns: I have not personally experienced any war.
Even though I live in the USA, which is fighting a
war, I rarely feel that people here are aware of the
war. Just cartoons of not-really-war.
I keep saying the word war and it starts to change.
The sound itself changes, in my ears, in my mouth.
It becomes anger. Anger rises within me. Anger: this
keeper of tears. But one anger rarely comes alone.
Just as we can’t separate our tears. There is so much.
War. War. The first whisper of my anger becomes a
roaring, a torrent. War is consuming me.
I go deeper into the anger. I become this word war,
and become the anger. I feel it now in my hands, my
fingers. I’m holding it, embracing it. So horribly raw.
War. Raw. It rolls over my tongue, through my lips.
I feel the pain of an open wound. Terrible. Terrible
beyond any words.
Then the warmth, the heat, of tears. Wet. Running
down my cheeks. The shock of being powerless.
Powerless. I yell the word. WAR! Loud. Desperate.
I whisper it. I am exhausted. Weary. Lost. Shaking.
The machines of war smash through cities, streets,
alleys, parks. Flattening homes. Wounding people.
Maiming. Crushing people.
Alive, I feel the pain of the victims: ruined, alone,
dying alone, in agony, alone. Holding broken loved
ones, murdered loved ones, in their arms. Helpless.
In agony. No help from anywhere. Alone.
I see children’s eyes: terrified. Not understanding.
How could they? They can’t. Crying, frightened,
screaming, pleading. For what? For mother. Their
pain is too great to know anything. Just terror and a
gony. Children. Children.
I’m embarrassed. Ashamed. Humbled. I realize: it’s
presumptuous to claim I know how a victim of war
feels. I care with all my heart, all my soul, but I know
next to nothing.
I am devastated: humbled, reeling.
I close the shutter and open the black box.
I have a photograph.
A ten-minute exposure. This length of ten minutes is
not a measure of time or anything. And the picture
is not visual data. The picture is what I learn when I
dwell in real experience, humbly, gratefully receiving
what I can manage to learn.
To make a photograph is not to produce a piece of
visual data. To make a photograph is to dwell with
life: to learn, gradually, patiently, painfully, what life
is, what’s here, what’s real. To know. To care.
Fast images dull the mind and create forgetting. A
ten-minute exposure awakens the mind and bestows
a grace: a chance to learn, to be with life, to be life.
This is what pinhole photography does. It is not a
technique. It is not a quaint retro-nostalgic style. It
is an urgent passionate quest to be with life.
Being with life takes time, and it takes humility. I
believe this is the purpose of living and I believe it’s
the purpose of photography. To learn our humanity.
This is what pinhole photography does. It does not
capture visual data. It opens me to learning what
What war is. War. The word is easy to say. Too easy.
It becomes glib. Pinhole photography makes me less
glib. More aware. More responsible, I hope. More
responsible. I hope.
The word war merges into an ancient ache, deep
I hope in seeing this photograph you can come into
your own dwelling place, your own learning.
I hope we can learn together. There is so much to
learn. More than we’ll ever come close to learning. I
hope we can learn together.
War. I make this pinhole portrait so that we can
learn together. I hope we can.
Henrieke I. Strecker, September 2008